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"We all know the story: A steady influx of undocumented workers, crossing our borders illegally in search of work and a better life; A market among employers willing to flout the law in order to hire cheap labor; And as a result, some 12 million people, here illegally, living in the shadows-a source of pain and conflict." - Janet Napolitano, DHS Secretary, 2009
Unfortunately, the politics of our system and the preconceived notions on immigrant criminality has provided misleading information for the general public. Many public figures strongly believe and courageously announce through mass media that the amount of crime in the United States has increased dramatically due to the large influx of immigrants, particularly those from low-income South American countries crossing the U.S. border without proper documentation that would match the rules and regulations of the ever-changing immigration policies. Although statistics show the opposite, great many highly-opinionated people on the subject matter would state that the majority of the most violent crimes in the nation is committed by illegal immigrants.
"Illegal immigration puts pressure on public schools and hospitals; it strains state and local budgets, and brings crime to our communities," addressed former President G. W. Bush in his speech on Immigration Reform on May 15, 2006. Speeches of this nature arising from authorities have much enough convincing power to create stereotypes and profiling, thus potentially victimizing many foreigners, whether criminal or non-criminal, diminishing their values in the American society, and ignoring their contribution to the overall economy through intensive low-paid labor work. Many undocumented immigrants who enter in the United State especially from Latin American countries come from extremely disadvantaged socioeconomic background without having had an opportunity for higher or even high school education. They are driven by poverty and motivated by the hope of finding any labor job that would pay much enough wages to provide food for family members and a shelter to stay for survival. Despite their tremendous contribution to the United States labor market and the overall economy, they are still viewed as criminals simply because of being undocumented or unauthorized to work in the United States.
The Myth of Immigrant Criminality
Dr. Ruben G. Rumbaut, professor of Sociology at University of California, Irvine, and Dr. Walter A. Ewing, Research Associate at the Immigration Policy Center in Washington D.C., took a rather realistic approach in describing and analyzing the misperception people have long had in regards to immigration. Rumbaut and Ewing (2007), in their intensive research study illustrate, ""The misperception that immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, are responsible for higher crime rates is deeply rooted in American public opinion and is sustained by media anecdotes and popular myth. This perception is not supported empirically. In fact, it is refuted by the preponderance of scientific evidence." (p. 3).
Data from the U.S. census and evidence-based research findings show that incarceration rates among foreign-born young men is much lower than that of native-born young men. Driven by post-9/11 fears and misled by policymakers and the mass media, the general public subconsciously links terrorism and criminality with immigrants. The most targeted victims are Central Americans (particularly Mexican immigrants) who are associated with higher rates of crime and incarceration, Middle Easterners and Africans who are associated with terrorist attacks, as well as Asians and citizens of former USSR countries who associated with corruption and bribery. The above mentioned are the targeted victims who are accused in breaking the rule of law.
Rumbaut and Ewing (2007) report in their findings that (1) the violent crime rate in the United States has declined by nearly thirty-five percent with a decline in property crime by twenty-five percent as the number of undocumented immigrants has doubled to twelve million since 1994, particularly in large metropolitan cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Houston, or Chicago; (2) the incarceration rate of the native-born was five times higher than that of the foreign-born; (3) immigrant high-school drop-outs have lower incarceration rate than native-born high-school drop-outs (pp. 1-2). (More facts and figures on incarceration rates are provided on Table 1 in Appendix A).
Clearly, to relate immigrants - particularly those who are undocumented - to higher rates of crimes and incarceration is merely false accusation. In fact, the undocumented immigrants tend to be more law-abiding that the natives, because they do already have the pre-existing fears and see no reason to disobey the low or engage on any misdemeanor or criminal act since their only source of income - their means of survival - is from the place they live and work. Besides the crime-related accusations, the society continuously blames the undocumented immigrants for taking the low-paid opportunities away from their children.
A closer look at the current situation in America would certainly prove the opposite; we see more and more of our young American children priding themselves in the desire of the American dream and not willing to do dirty or low-paid labor jobs. The idea that the native children would otherwise take advantage of labor jobs sounds rather mythical. What the society, however, fails to see is the real picture, the better side; if we follow the request to deport the undocumented immigrants (comprising less than five percent of the U.S. workforce), the nation would lose billions of dollars in expenditures and economic output. Surprisingly, they are referred to as illegal immigrants or illegal workers; however, very few people have even questioned about who hires them and what the motivation behind the hiring remains.
Reverse Look at Immigrant Employment
The sole factor that makes millions of immigrants 'illegal' or 'criminal' is that they are not properly documented to live and work in the United States but somehow entered into the country due to financial emergency needs to secure very low-paying jobs in the labor market in order to survive. Too much emphasis has been put on enforcing the immigration policies, deporting those immigrants, or imprisoning them. However, little attempts have been made by authorities or policymakers to question how we end up having so many illegal employees in the nation. Given the common-sense fact that nobody ever becomes an employee without an employer's offer for employment, one would believe that there should be a question on why employers continue to illegally staff their companies with undocumented immigrants.
The prisons are full of undocumented immigrants but hardly ever any illegal employer is given a sentence. Illegally offering jobs at illegal rates to undocumented immigrants is severe violation of the verification provisions of Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. While some employers do use the I-9 verification process, the majority of illegal employers are well aware of the immigrants' immigration status but are still willing to falsify the information on the paperwork in order to hire someone whom they can pay minimum or sometimes even below minimum wages without any benefits or simply because they are the only available workforce. Unfortunately, the system seems to be working in favor of those company owners who know the tricks to pretend innocent when investigation is involved; suddenly they become unaware of their illegal hiring and the punishment apparently goes to the undocumented immigrants.
Lowell, Martin and Bump (2007) of Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University have undertaken a two-year study on workforce verification. The study shows that out of twenty documents each employer is by law required to use for employment verification purposes, "the verification "I-9 form" is undermined by fraudulent documents, identity fraud, confusion about procedures, reliance on labor subcontractors, and low penalties" (p. 4). The investigation should, therefore, also aim at the employers of low-paid labor workers to identify the violations of wages and the working conditions and bring criminal charges against their illegal staffing procedures.
Although the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took the initiative towards worksite hiring crimes, the government started to spend more funds on border control and deportation which limited the number of law enforcement officers for worksite investigation. For his first presidency, George W. Busch campaigned then introduces a new immigration reform plan, but the Administration and the Congress failed to pass any reform, especially after the 9/11 tragedy. "Following the events of September 11, 2001, resources for interior enforcement were redirected towards national security-related investigations. Prosecuting criminal employer cases became a subordinate priority to protecting critical infrastructure such as airports, military bases, and nuclear plants and criminal prosecutions plummeted," the research revealed (p. 10).
Due to the chaotic situation in the system, many victimized employees end up getting into a more vulnerable situation, because they do not seek any remedies or legal action for the employer's violation of the labor laws fearing deportation. Labor law violation may might include failing to pay wages or paying less than minimum wage for the hours worked and none at all for the overtime hours. Many employers, however - especially insurance industry - misclassify employees as independent agents or contractors so that later as employers they will not be held responsible for labor law violations or for work permit verification responsibilities. In the case of independent contractors, the employers might even require them to sell the products with most-accurate illegal steps.
It was only two weeks ago when I was called for an interview at American Life Insurance (AIL) company in Honolulu, HI. Although I am fully documented and authorized to live and work in the United States permanently, I could not believe that the manager would call all applicants for three interviews within two days and offer Insurance Agent position to all of use immediately following the interview. Then without checking IDs or receiving any acceptance to the oral offer of employment, we were all being almost forced to make pre-payments of about $500 to start working as independent agents. If I had pursued a lawsuit against the manager for hiring without I-9 or ID verification, the law would have probably worked against me, since the manager was going to give us the 'independent agent' title. Unfortunately, the policies and law most of the times end up favoring the companies as opposed to protecting the innocents.
Lowell, Martin, and Bump (2007) observe, "As long as employers hire persons without authorization to work in the United States, migrants will continue to enter the country illegally in order to obtain jobs. Deterring employment of unauthorized migrants requires a combination of improved employment verification and enhanced enforcement of employer sanctions, labor standards and anti-discrimination measures" (p. 25). The problems associated with immigration policies is increasing day by day; it is time to acknowledge the issues of the existing system and identify way for a new comprehensive immigration reform.
The Ongoing Problem with the Immigration System
Over the past decade, the immigration crisis was primarily characterized as an issue with undocumented immigrants; however, there are issues of much larger scale to be addressed. Limited number of visas is made available by the government to assure that the dynamic needs of the U.S. economy and the labor market are met by bringing either highly educated or very uneducated immigrants. Unscrupulous employers continue to violate the wages and labor laws without being subject to any serious punishment while the skilled immigrants are paid very low and the undocumented immigrants are found criminals and forced to depart the land. The Naturalization process of immigrants' family members has been delayed over the past decade creating more legal issues for the reunification of family members and their immigration records. In order to reunite with family in the United States, many foreigners unfortunately wait for period of up to twenty years. On the other side, the unauthorized immigrants who have already been working in the U.S. for over a decade and who try to follow the legal procedures to legalize their immigrant status are delayed, rejected, or deported due to the inadequately operating government infrastructure.
A friend of mine from Armenia was offered scholarship to study in the United States for the past six year. She did not have the opportunity to study at her home country, being the only child of a single mother. The U.S. Embassy provided her a one-entry visa which would mean she could not return to the States to finish the degrees if she had visited home to see her mother. After six years, the mother applied for a temporary visitor's visa several times to finally get an opportunity to visit her only child. Each time she was rejected by the Embassy because she did not have large enough property, assets, or investment in Armenia to "guarantee" a return. She had to undergo major emotional issues and depression which cost her thousands of dollars and was very tempted to provide falsified documents to sound wealthy enough to visit her daughter.
If the mission of the U.S. Embassies overseas is to reject people who follow the legal procedures to gain access to the States for a short period, then we will continue seeing more and more immigrants getting into this country without proper documentation, especially those who are coming here with hopes of finding low-paid jobs. Unfortunately, the government has not come up with comprehensive solutions, continuing to spend billions of dollars in either building and staffing prisons to imprison undocumented immigrants or deporting those immigrants by hiring thousands of law enforcement agents to work in stereotypical search for illegal immigrants.
Primary Causes of Immigration Issues
There are very few legal ways for most immigrants to enter into the United States and those limited categories favor only specific groups of people. The limitations, complexity, and difficulty of obtaining legal status or permanent residency have become a major challenge for immigrants, especially the undocumented immigrants. Not qualifying for refugee status and not having the necessary connections or relationships in the United States to seek legal sponsorship, many immigrants especially from low-income Latin American countries are forced to seek alternative means. A research study and policy analysis conducted by Immigration Policy Center (2009) located in Washington, D.C., categorizes the lack of comprehensive federal solution as "structural failure and inadequate responses" (p. 3). The immigration laws are very outdated and do not meet the needs and demands of a 21st-century America. The study conducted by the Immigration Policy Center (2009) identifies major issues resulting from the outdated immigration system ("structural failure") which includes:
(1) Separating families and hurting U.S. businesses; (2) deteriorating the workforce conditions harming the workers; (3) delaying the processing of visa and citizenship applications; (4) forcing twelve million unauthorized people to live in limbo; and causing over four million U.S.-citizen children to live in mixed status families with parents who are found unauthorized (p. 4).
The government has put more emphasis on deporting undocumented immigrants through law enforcement, failing to allocate resources for processing visa application and delaying the integration process for immigrants who want to legally pursue residency or citizenship to continue their commitment to this country with a sense of responsibility and integrity. However, the bureaucratic obstacles of the naturalization service fail to provide adequate response to the growing demands - the second cause of issues which the study by the Immigration Policy Center (2009) categorizes under "inadequate response" which deepens the crisis by (1) using ineffective law-enforcement and punishment strategies; (2) making border protection more expensive, inefficient, inadequate, and dangerous than ever before; (3) failing labor-law enforcement programs; and (4) criminalizing immigration violations, thus resulting in discrimination and civil rights violations (pp. 12-17).
Necessary Reform for Positive Change
The current structure of the U.S. immigration system does not assure national security, does not encourage immigrants to enter into the country with legal procedures, and does not focus on people who are serious threats to the public safety and national security; instead, it spends billions of dollars on criminalizing undocumented immigrants and deporting them as opposed to coming up with integration strategies for those immigrants and focusing on more violent crimes that take away thousands of innocent Americans' lives. Therefore, a comprehensive immigration reform for the common good of the American public needs to take place.
The current immigration policies are extremely complicated and always changing which makes many immigrants, who come from non-English-speaking countries or unstructured systems, unable to comprehend and make sure everything they do strictly matches the every-changing policies; this results in unrealized 'criminal' illegal acts. On the other hand, making it difficult and limited to obtain permanent legal status (which happens only through family-based, employment-based and humanitarian-based immigration or lottery) does not provide equal opportunities, does not match labor market needs and economic demands, and creates a separation between families. The system, more dangerously, fails to come up with more peaceful, cost effective, and efficient strategies to integrate immigrants into American culture, English language, and citizenship status.
Through integration and legalization strategy, we can dramatically eliminate the number of undocumented immigrants or unauthorized employees, we can welcome newer immigrants into a country which started by immigrants, we can build more responsible and educated new citizens providing trainings for English-language proficiency and awareness of the rule of law, we can decrease substantially the cost of law enforcement and focus on more violent crimes to assure national safety and public security, and we can be the nation to practice life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and to live the American dream.
MPI (Migration Policy Institute)
"Debuting the Myth of Immigrant Criminality: Imprisonment among First- and Second-Generation Young Men"
Table 1. Percent of Males 18 to 39 Incarcerated in the United States, 2000, by Nativity and Level of Education, in Rank Order by Ethnicity
Males, ages 18 to 39:
Percent incarcerated, by nativity and by education:
Total in US
High school graduate?
US born %
Latin American Ethnicities:
Colombian, Ecuadorian, Peruvian
Puerto Rican (a)
Note: (a) Island-born Puerto Ricans, who are US citizens by birth and not immigrants, are classified as "foreign born" for purposes of this table; mainland-born Puerto Ricans are here classified under "US born."
Source: 2000 U.S. Census, 5% PUMS. Data are estimates for adult males, ages 18 to 39, institutionalized at the time of the census.